Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: The List, by Siobhan Vivian

Vivian, Siobhan. The List. 332 p. Push. 2012. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780545169172. 

High school can be tough. The latest title from Siobhan Vivian is set in a school with a dark tradition. Each year, an anonymous list is posted all over campus to proclaim the ugliest and prettiest girl in each grade. The List tells the stories of how these labels affect the eight girls singled out this time.

The spare prose in third-person present-tense makes for an quick, thoroughly engrossing read. With eight protagonists, it sometimes took me a second to mentally adjust from one to another and recall their concerns and situation-- like "Oh yeah, the girl with the boyfriend" or "the girl with the little sister." But Vivian writes each character in a distinct and memorable way, which is an impressive feat with such a large cast. Most compelling to me were athletic Danielle, trying to find her footing as a physically strong girl who doesn't necessarily want to feel unfeminine, and Candace, dethroned mean girl who has to learn how to be nice.

Each character's story is individual, but the girls' lives intertwine in intriguing and sometimes surprising and ways. Some of the secondary characters could have been more fully fleshed out (Why was Lauren's mom so controlling?), and some of the protagonists didn't have a strong sense of character evolution or closure at the end of their stories. But perhaps it's more realistic that way, and Vivian leaves it up to the reader to consider the fates of all the girls. The text also naturally invites the reader to decide which they might see themselves reflected in-- which characters they want to be like, and which characters they don't.

All in all, even though I wish there had been a little more "oomph" to the ending, I loved reading this. Vivian's writing style is addictive, and I spent a couple of nights reading way past my bedtime. This look at the way girls see themselves and are affected by others' perceptions is thought-provoking-- a highly compelling read that would make an excellent high school book club pick.

Look for The List in bookstores everywhere on April 1. ARC for review was kindly passed along to me by my local indie bookseller.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: The Queen's Lady, by Eve Edwards

Edwards, Eve. The Queen's Lady. 336 p. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. 2012. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780385740913.

Sometimes you just want a comfort read, you know?

Well, historical fiction fans need look no further than The Lacey Chronicles for their perfect, curl-up-in-a-blanket-and-grab-a-mug-of-hot-cocoa kind of book. This second volume of the series is just as appealing as the first, rich with historical details of Elizabethan England and a large cast of engaging, well-rounded characters.

In the spotlight this time is Jane, one of the supporting characters from The Other Countess, as she becomes involved with the second Lacey brother, James. As in the first book, social customs of the era are illustrated through the tangled web of romantic conflicts faced by the characters.

Edwards explores themes of colonization and racial prejudice in this volume, providing a welcome chance to get better acquainted with Diego, the African-born servant of the Lacey family. We only got a hint of his humor and intelligence in the first volume, and he is more fully fleshed-out here as he tackles discrimination and cultural differences in his attempts to woo his childhood sweetheart.

Readers who loved The Other Countess will delight in the brief appearances of Ellie and Will here-- an enjoyable peek at what they've been up to since their happily-ever-after. At the same time, this volume could stand alone, and doesn't depend too heavily on knowledge of its predecessor.

The Queen's Lady is another satisfying historical romance that will leave Edwards' fans looking forward to the third volume in the series.

Already available in England, the US edition of The Queen's Lady arrives at bookstores everywhere on April 10th. ARC for review provided by Delacorte, an imprint of Random House, via NetGalley.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Audiobook Review: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. 2011. Scholastic Audio Books. Audiobook $79.99. ISBN 9780545357050

Let me admit this up front: I'm not really a horse person. I went to Girl Scout horse camp in 5th grade, and I liked it, but I've never been enamored of horses the way so many girls are.

So maybe I'm not the ideal audience for The Scorpio Races, a story about a boy and a girl who live on an island where wild, dangerous water horses climb out of the ocean every Fall, and the islanders try to tame and ride them in an annual race. It's a brutal tradition in which not everyone survives, and both Sean and Kate (called Puck) have their own reasons for participating.

My feelings are mixed about the book as a whole, but by the end, I have to admit that I kind of did come to love the horses.

For me, this book's strength lies in its atmospheric setting. I could practically feel the bracing winds and smell the sea through Stiefvater's prose. Though it is fictional, the remote little island of Thisby feels completely real, layered with its own history.

In contrast, my difficulty in connecting with this book lies in the character of Puck. She's selfish, prickly, and often startlingly ungrateful: a difficult character to like. I'm usually all for a character with flaws, and her flaws may very well make her more endearing to many readers, but Puck's self-centered outlook grated on me. Despite the fact that she does show growth, compassion, and maturity toward the end of the book, I felt I spent too much time simply trying to endure her. Alas!

I enjoyed other characters, though-- especially Puck's little brother, Finn, for his loyalty and faith in his sister. I'm pretty sure I said "aww!" every time he made an appearance.

Since this Printz Honor winning novel was also named an Odyssey Honor book for audiobook excellence, and was selected as one of YALSA's Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults, I decided to listen to this book on CD. And indeed, the audiobook production is gorgeous. Steve West as Sean and Fiona Hardingham as Puck deliver solid, rich performances and bring so much life to the characters. Both narrators have excellent pacing and British accents that are simply a pleasure to hear.

When audiobooks feature dual narrators, each narrator is responsible for their own main character, but they also read the dialogue of the other narrator's character in scenes where the two interact. I always wonder if the director has both narrators listen to each other's performance, so they can loosely replicate the other actor's pitch and pacing. I don't think all audiobook productions go to that level of detail, but I do believe Steve West and Fiona Hardingham must have listened to each other's performances. Their deliveries of each other's characters in dialogue scenes are spot-on, making for a seamless listening experience.  

Not only are the narrators utterly fantastic, but Stiefvater appears at the end of the audiobook with an informative and interesting author's note explaining the research she did about water horse mythology.

Also, the audiobook is framed by evocative music that suits the story perfectly-- and which, as I was astounded and impressed to learn, was composed by the author herself. Talk about talent! The music is also featured in the mesmerizing book trailer, animated by Stiefvater. I am in awe. Take a look!

In the end, although The Scorpio Races was a somewhat uneven read for me, I can appreciate its merits, and can see why it has garnered so much recognition. It is a beautifully written, fantastically original novel.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

5 Ways to Get a Lot of Reading Done - Even if You're Not a Fast Reader

Noting the ever-present book in my hand during a recent appointment, my hairstylist commented, "You must be a fast reader!" And I had to admit that, no, I'm really not. I think I'm about average. It's challenging for me to get my desired amount of reading done, especially after having kids. Everything is a balancing act.

That said, I managed to read 85 books last year, and I'm challenging myself to read 90 this year, so I do make reading a priority. But how does one manage to get a lot of reading done when they're not necessarily a fast reader? Here are some strategies that work for me: 

1. Read in multiple formats 
This is probably my top strategy for efficient reading-- I always have an audiobook in the car and an ebook on my phone, so I can read on my commute and at odd moments like being stuck in a waiting room, or even in a long line at a store. I especially can't stand to be without an audiobook in the car. I'm totally hooked on the format, and a drive without an audiobook just feels like a waste of time.

2. Read at meals
Within reason, obviously. If you're having dinner with other people, put the book down already! But if you're left to your own devices, I say read away. Mealtime is such a pleasant opportunity to sit down for a decent chunk of time and indulge-- in both good food and a good book. Just don't get spaghetti sauce on the pages.

3. Read books in a variety of locations
As I think I've mentioned before, I have a book on my nightstand, a book on my dining room table downstairs, and a book on my desk at work for my lunch hour. And then, of course, I always have the aforementioned audio and ebooks. Wherever I go, I always have something to read... so no excuses!

The stack of books on my nightstand right now.

4. Read on a deadline
Being a book reviewer for School Library Journal means I have reading assignments with specific deadlines. Deadlines help me structure my "to read" list and keep me focused. I know what I have to read, and when. Self-imposed deadlines like participating in reading challenges like The Story Siren's Debut Author Challenge or your library's Summer Reading Program can also work toward this strategy.

5. Read for pleasure
This one's a no-brainer-- time flies when you're having fun, right? Same with reading! Unless I'm obligated to read a book for a particular reason, I feel no qualms about setting it aside and moving on if it turns out not to be my cup of tea. It can be torturous to slog through a book you don't like, so I recommend skipping the ordeal and getting back to the fun.

On a related note, my friend Beth at A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust blogged recently about encouraging her students to be "readers in the wild," and listed some of her own reading habits that she hopes her students will model. It's a great post-- check it out.  

What about you? Do you consider yourself to be a fast reader? What the fastest you've ever read a book? (For me, it was the last few Harry Potter books-- I did manage to read them within 24 hours of their release dates... but that was before I had kids!) What are your best strategies for reading efficiently?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Harbinger, by Sara Wilson Etienne

Etienne, Sara Wilson. Harbinger. 309 p. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2012. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780399256684. 

This book marks my second review for the 2012 Debut Author Challenge hosted by the Story Siren.

Harbinger is original, unpredictable, and very different from anything else I've seen on the YA shelves lately. In fact, with its supernatural elements and psychological suspense, this title reminds me of those classic Lois Duncan novels from the '70s and '80s-- which I loved. So if you're in the mood for something strange and fascinating, this book might just be your cup of tea.

Although Faye isn't happy when her parents enroll her in a discipline-heavy boarding school for troubled youth against her will, even she has to admit she might be insane. She has visions of floods, and she and her schoolmates wake up each morning with blood red hands and no memory of what transpired the night before. What's really going on at Holbrook Academy?

Vivid imagery, short chapters, and a relentless procession of twists and turns engage the reader, and the tension doesn't let up until the book's conclusion. And it is a true conclusion-- bucking the current YA trend, this one's a standalone, not a trilogy.

The writing is tight, with brisk pacing and a strong, eerie sense of setting. I enjoyed Faye's role as a possibly unreliable narrator, with her uncertain mental state. Supporting characters are fairly well-rounded, though I found the large cast challenging to keep track of at times. There is an element of romance in this story, but it doesn't overtake the other plot elements, making this title a good choice for anyone growing weary of the typical paranormal romance formula.

Sara Wilson Etienne has made a memorable debut with Harbinger, and I look forward to seeing what else this creative new author has in store. I had the pleasure of meeting Sara at the Passion & Prose conference last month-- stay tuned for her appearance on the Authors are ROCKSTARS! podcast soon!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Blog Makeover

My blog got a makeover! This calls for a makeover montage... cue the music! 

Picture my blog preening in front of a three-way mirror, trying on crazy wigs, spinning around in flowy ballgowns, and tripping in ridiculously high heels as "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" plays in the background...

I like this dress
Image courtesy of lucyfrench123

Okay, okay-- you get the idea. Check out my awesome new blog header and color scheme!

I decided that after having kept up this blog for over a year, it was time to fancy things up around here. So I asked my good friend Elle Cardenas, an extremely talented artist and illustrator, to design a blog header for me.

She was wonderful about asking the right questions to find out what I had in mind, and worked with me to come up with a concept that reflects who I am and what I'm about. Thank you, E.! I absolutely love the way the blog header design turned out.

Visit Elle at and please take a moment to drop a comment here and tell her what a fantastic job she did on my blog header.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Waiting On Wednesday

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. My choice this week:

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: April 3, 2012

Publisher's description: 
Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at the convent of St. Mortain. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. She will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death—yet in order to claim her new life, she must be willing to take the lives of others. But how can she deliver Death's vengeance against a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
I really only need to know two things about this book: it has nuns as trained assassins for the god of death and is set in medieval France. Just... YES. Also, I have to admit, I'm kind of a sucker for that whole "I was sent to kill you, but I love you!" trope. As if that wasn't enough, everyone who's read an advance copy seems to rave about it! It sounds like it really stands out from the crowd.

And the sad thing is, I actually had the chance to read this book from NetGalley-- but the file wouldn't load on my iPhone, so I ended up having to let it expire unread. Then, months later, the publisher made it available on NetGalley again for a brief 48 hour period, but I missed it! I know, I know... play the world's tiniest violin for me, please.

It's okay, though-- I'll rally. The publishing date will be here before I know it, after all! I'm definitely ordering a copy for my library, and can't wait to get my hands on it.

Watch the book trailer and read an excerpt at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's official Grave Mercy site.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Today marks the one year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Can you believe it's been a year? This milestone weighs on my mind because, as I've blogged about previously, I have a personal relationship with Japan. I lived and worked for a year in a small Japanese city as part of the JET Program after I graduated from college. Although I only spent one year there, it's an experience that changed my life and I made memories that I will treasure forever.

Visiting an enthusiastic elementary school class.
How cute is this mob of kids?!
Hanging out after class with some of my students at a junior high school.
These girls were always so cheerful and eager to ask me questions about my life in the United States.
I was invited to participate in this school's culture festival, and played the role of a queen in their school play. My costume was provided by the students, tiara and all! The kids decided to cast against traditional gender roles, so the boy next to me in the beautiful white dress played my daughter, the princess.

Because of my familiarity with the Japanese culture and language, I often review Japan-related material for School Library Journal. Here are a few of the titles I've been privileged to review-- I recommend them as a way to introduce Japan to young readers.

I've mentioned this one before, but it bears repeating: this is an absolutely wonderful book. It's a rare glimpse at a small Japanese village, which is, sadly, a vanishing breed. The photographs and text that make up this book were created by the young people of Toho village as they tell their own story.

Because this book is from a small publisher, it may not be on many people's radar. I highly recommend requesting that your librarian purchase it to ensure that your library carries a copy. In fact, Next Generation Press wants to make it easier for you to recommend this book for purchase at your library! See their library campaign for details.

The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson
This lovely book by a Newbery Honor winning author takes place mostly in the United States, but it will pique readers' interest in Japan because it's the fictionalized account of one of the 58 Japanese dolls sent to the United States in 1927, and how she works in the life of five children over the decades.

Larson did a great deal of research to write this story, and she expertly brings to life a little-known piece of history about Japan sending dolls to the United States as a gesture of goodwill. After so many years, sadly, some of the dolls have gone missing. Be sure to visit Kirby Larson's blog for an incredible story about how her book was the catalyst in the rediscovery of one of the lost dolls!

Japanese Nursery Rhymes, by Danielle Wright
Traditional songs and rhymes from Japan are introduced with brightly colored illustrations and an accompanying music CD. This very sweet book is especially perfect for mothers and caregivers to share with young babies and toddlers, or librarians seeking to increase multicultural content in their storytimes. Text is in English and Japanese.

All About Japan, by Willamarie Moore
All aspects of Japanese culture, from arts to food, are celebrated in this lively collection of stories, information, crafts, and activities. Two fictionalized narrators- one child from the city and one from the countryside- describe their daily lives, making it easy for a young reader in the United States to identify with children in far-away country.

Circus Day in Japan, by Eleanor Coerr
A delightful picture book by the author famous for writing Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, this story follows a brother and sister who travel by train from the countryside to the city to spend an exciting day at the circus. This reprint of one of Coerr's lesser-known works is full of mid-century charm, and the bilingual text makes it an appealing choice for Japanese-American families.

In addition to books, a young reader interested in Japan may also enjoy the beautifully designed iPad app, Chasing Fireflies: A Haiku Collection. Read my review on School Library Journal's Touch and Go blog.

One year after the earthquake and tsunami, Japan has made an amazing amount of progress in rebuilding. Thanks to Google Street View, you can travel virtually through the affected areas as they were before the disaster and as they appear after recovery efforts: Japan: Before and After the Earthquake and Tsunami

The Atlantic has an incredible gallery of photographs taken during and just after tsunami and the same locations now: Japan Earthquake: Before and After

A happy update on one of the iconic photographs that emerged last year: After the Tsunami, Yuko Sugimoto's Reunion With Her Son

Despite the encouraging progress, help and support for Japan are still needed. It can be challenging to find organizations that are still actively involved in the relief efforts, but Global Giving's Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund looks like a good choice.

You may also consider purchasing a copy of Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction, a collection of short stories about Japan, written for teens. From the anthology's website:
"Proceeds from the sales of Tomo will go to organizations that assist teens in the quake and tsunami hit areas. Tomo, which means friend in Japanese, aims to bring Japan stories to young adult readers worldwide, and in so doing, help support teens in Tohoku."
And finally, consider visiting Japan. Tourism is down, and visitors are very much welcome. It's a fantastic, vibrant place to visit, with so much to see and do.

Once my kids are a little bit older, I can't wait to visit Japan again-- and until then, I'll introduce them to Japan through books.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Goddess Interrupted, by Aimée Carter

Carter, Aimée. Goddess Interrupted. 304 p. Harlequin Teen. 2012. Paperback $9.99. ISBN 9780373210459. 

In keeping with my goal to read more sequels this year, I was eager to read this follow-up to The Goddess Test. I found Carter's debut novel to be a likable spin on Greek mythology, and really came to care about the main characters, Kate and Henry. As a refresher, Kate is a mortal girl who ends up agreeing to undergo a series of tests to become the wife of Henry, who is actually Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. 

Goddess Interrupted is an engaging read, but I found it to be a little less cohesive than the first volume. I admit that this may be a result of the way I read it-- on my phone, while nursing my little one. So I read it in brief, ten-minute chunks here and there over the course of about a week. This reading method works fine for some books, and other books... not so much. The plot is action-packed and there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and I suspect if I would have had a different experience with this book if I'd been able to sit down and just inhale it.

As it is, though, I feel this is definitely a worthy sequel. If you like the first volume, you'll like this one. Carter effectively creates tension in the romance between Kate and Henry, and plot twist of Kate having to interact with Persephone is intriguing, since Persephone's character was entirely "off screen" in volume one-- yet so very significant to the story. I liked that Kate had find a way to come to terms with her.

The chance to spend more time with characters I enjoy and a very suspenseful cliffhanger ending guarantee that I will pick up the third volume and see how Kate and Henry's story will wrap up.

On another note, I like the cover to Goddess Interrupted-- it coordinates nicely with the cover of The Goddess Test, but the girl pictured looks stronger. She's standing upright, hooray! The first volume's cover was almost flirting with "dead girl cover" territory. What do you think?

Goddess Interrupted hits bookstores everywhere on March 27. ARC for review provided by Harlequin Teen via NetGalley. Don't miss our podcast interview with Aimée Carter on Authors are ROCKSTARS! 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Audiobook Review: The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Mighty Miss Malone. 2012. Listening Library. Audiobook $44.00. ISBN 9780307968227.

Is it too much to say that Deza Malone is the most memorable young girl in children’s literature since Anne of Green Gables? Would I be going too far to suggest that we just put a gold sticker on this book right now?

I mean, honestly. This book is SO. GOOD.

In this story of a young girl and her family weathering hard times during the Great Depression, Christopher Paul Curtis returns to a character from his Newbery Medal winning title, Bud, Not Buddy.

So, first things first: does this story stand on its own if you haven’t read Bud, Not Buddy?

Well, I have something to confess. I read Bud, Not Buddy several years ago. Like, we're talking library school, pre-kids-- it was a whole different life. And while I remember loving it,  I confess that I did not remember how and where Deza came into Bud's story. Like, at all. I’m so ashamed. But my faulty memory serves you well, dear reader, because I can say with absolute confidence that, YES, you can jump into this one without having read the previous volume.

Having looked it up, I was amused to note that the interaction between Deza and Bud differs significantly  between the two books-- each character tells their own version of their meeting, and I LOVE that Curtis sets them both up as slightly unreliable narrators. That suits the almost "tall tale" tone of these books just perfectly.

So back to the excellence of The Mighty Miss Malone...

I experienced this book on CD, and let me tell you, I cried in the car on the way to work listening to it. Not once, not twice, but THREE times! Seriously, you would think I would have learned after the first time to stop listening on my commute, but I couldn’t help it.

This is a powerful story with exhilarating highs and devastating lows-- I sometimes found myself laughing and crying at the same time. And other times, just crying. In particular, the aftermath of a certain boxing match and what it meant to Deza, her family, and her whole community absolutely wrecked me.

I came to love the characters in this book to the point that they became almost real to me-- as if this weren't historical fiction, but a biography. Deza herself is a delightfully flawed character who changes and grows as she experiences more than her fair share of challenges. The adult characters in the book, especially Deza's mother, are well-rounded and fully developed in their own right. I found myself wanting to know what would become of Deza and her family beyond the scope of this book. Basically, I want Christopher Paul Curtis to write Deza's entire life, because I need to know what happens to her.

And I would want to have Bahni Turpin narrate the whole thing. As wonderful as Curtis' writing already is, her performance as the audiobook narrator really brings this story to life. She has an incredible range, doing a masterful job with women, men, and children's voices alike. Notably, when one character goes through a physical change after an accident, Turpin maintains the recognizable voice she had created for the character, but manages the distinct difference caused by his new circumstances. And her character voice for Deza's "second brain" made me laugh every time. I am floored by Turpin's talent.

I was struck by the way this story begins with "Once upon a time," and ends with a hopeful yet ambiguous ending. The reader is left with a sense of optimism, but there's no easy "happily ever after" here. This is a story about poverty, and though it's historical fiction, the youth of today will relate as we all struggle with the current economy.

The Mighty Miss Malone is already one of my favorite reads of 2012. I want my children to read it when they're older, and I want Christopher Paul Curtis to win a Newbery for it. If he does, I want to be at the banquet to see him speak. And I'll probably cry through the whole thing.

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